It is common to read that our increasingly diverse society – particularly its ethnic, national and religious diversity – is becoming more polarised and divided. This, it is feared, will lead to further prejudice and intolerance.
Yet, the largest ever study of the attitudes towards diversity (involving over 11,000 adults) finds that we are generally a tolerant and inclusive society. How We Get Along: the Diversity Study for England and Wales, which has just been published by the Woolf Institute, suggests there is an emerging national consensus. By three to one, in fact, we think ethnic diversity is good for Britain and by more than two to one, we think migrants are good for British society.
That’s the good news.
In contrast, however, prejudice based on religion and particularly towards Muslims, seems to run deeper. The only time the research finds a majority of negative attitudes is when it looks at religious, rather than ethnic or national groups. The study also finds that the pace of change in our communities is too much for many of us. By four to one we believe that the number of migrants nationally and in our communities is increasing too fast and surely, left unchecked, this will threaten social cohesion and undermine what has been achieved.
So how do we ‘bank’ the progress made and build on this current consensus? First, let’s recognise that being “pro-diversity” and “pro-immigration control” is not contradictory. The emerging consensus on both diversity and change offers opportunities for broad appeal, particularly for policymakers .
Secondly, one of the most interesting findings of the report is that we found high levels of diversity in friendship groups – 76 per cent of the respondents stated they have at least one friend from a different ethnic background and 87 per cent who identified as religious have friendships with people from another religion. Friendship is known to reduce prejudice. So, friendship matters and, for policymakers local and national, it works.
What’s more, the report finds, workplaces are a key environment in which those friendships are currently formed. Three quarters of us work in places that are ethnically, nationally, or religiously diverse.
Unfortunately, public policy to-date has largely ignored the significance of friendships in promoting cross-communal social cohesion. Furthermore, changing work patterns which see likely to persist even post-pandemic, will reduce the opportunities for workplaces friendships to form.
It is not practical or realistic to simply wish everything back as it once was. So instead, the government needs a coherent strategy to strengthen positive attitudes to diversity built around supporting friendships between people of different backgrounds. This has two elements to it:
First, there needs to be a shift in the focus in workplaces from tackling inequality towards promoting diversity. Policymakers and employers should consider “workplace solos” – those who are the only representative of their ethnicity or faith – more often.
As potential “ambassadors” of their own ethnic, national or religious group, they are well-placed to challenge stereotypes and establish new norms of social mixing. More broadly, all workers are a “safe bet” for integration and cohesion strategies and government needs to build on this.
Second, public policy makers need to recognise the importance of maintaining and expanding other opportunities for social mixing. If we are not going to meet in the office or the factory then this increases still further the significance of other meeting spaces, such as community centres, cultural activities and social spaces. These are, of course, are often based in and around the very facilities most threatened financially by the pandemic. So there are more than altruistic reasons for keeping such facilities open, as we move into a post-covid era.
How We Get Along shows how far we have come in being at ease with one another and fostering positive attitudes to diversity, but it also shows there are real threats if we don’t respond to the changing circumstances we now face. Some of the findings present a hopeful vision of British society but others suggest we still have much work to do.